C-T 2019 AREA HS FOOTBALL PREVIEWS: Most of senior-heavy lineup, top subs played extensively in 4-6 '18 campaign. District variation for this season boosts postseason prospects for Tim Rulo's second CHS squad

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — With a new head coach, new offensive system, new defensive coordinator, and almost-totally-new set of starters, the 2018 season played about as expected for the Chillicothe High Hornets.

Early-season miscues meant scoring struggles and decisive losses to more-experienced and polished foes. However, some steady progress blossomed into late-season success against less-formidable opponents and a final 4-7 record.

This season’s competition, which begins tomorrow night at Marshall, while some of their Midland Empire Conference brethren still figure to be a notch or several notches above them, a now-veteran CHS squad – heavily-populated with seniors having their last chance to make their own mark in Hornets history – projects, in its second year in the system of returning head coach Tim Rulo, to be a contender for a winning season.

“I have been very happy with the players and (assistant) coaches as they continue to grasp the style and system of how we are wanting to do things,” Rulo shares. “Year 2 is always easier than year 1!”

Of 32 potential returning lettermen, all except two rarely-used players are donning the pads for 2019, including 11 2018 starters – seven of them regularly 2-way performers.

On offense, virtually all of those regularly used at backfield or end positions a year ago remain available, as do three interior linemen, including a first-team all-MEC performer. An often-used reserve lineman has slid into one of the graduation vacancies and a couple of promising young prospects could help give the team a solidly-effective unit at the critical interior-blocking spots.

Defensively, two of the top three tacklers of 2018 and seven of the top 10 will be on hand, including an all-MEC first-team linebacker. At each level (line, linebacker, secondary), there will be plentiful experience that should translate to improved, consistent performance and reasonably-solid depth.

Add to that the availability of senior Isaih Kille, a defensive starter on the excellent 2017 Hornets, who projected to be one of last year’s best CHS players on both sides of the ball, only to sustain a nearly-season-long knee injury in the second quarter of the opening game, and Chillicothe has the ingredients for significantly upgrading its results in 2019.

“We are very blessed with experience this year,” Rulo, who came to Chillicothe after head coaching tenures at South Callaway and Jefferson City: Helias, acknowledges. “This experience, both on the field and with the coaching staff and system, has allowed us to be farther along at this point in installation, comfort with assignment and execution of jobs for each player on each play. 

“We have definitely seen fewer errors (in practices) and, when they have occurred, the correction happens more quickly as the players have a better understanding of what we are desiring.”

Personnel-wise (all players cited are seniors, unless otherwise noted), the running backs position appears well-stocked with Dawson Wheeler (team-best 6.2 ypc avg. in 2018), Kam Ward (456 yds., second-team all-MEC), speedy Isaak Rasche, Kille, Deon Reynolds, and Hayden Hill. Damarcus Kelow, a 230-pounds sophomore, add depth and size to the ball-carrying corps.

At quarterback, Jaden Winder (627 yds. passing, 48% accuracy) brings a strong arm and size (6’2”, 210 lbs.). If his timing and touch sharpen, he can stretch field – vertically and horizontally – in a way that would enhance the team’s “flexbone” run game. Effective on sneaks (8 TDs) with his size, he also showed growing effectiveness on option-play “keepers” late last season. Sophomore Gage Leamer – much smaller (5’10”, 150), but also more nimble and, with his wrestling experience, feisty – is the backup.

Ends Colten Sewell (team-high 16 rec., 234 yds., 2 TDs, second-team all-MEC), lanky Brad Hayen, and bulked-up Julius Humphrey (5’11”,  230) will be supplemented as pass receivers by backs Ward, Rasche, Reynolds, and Kille. A move-in (from Cameron) with Chillicothe ties – 6’7” senior Joseph Tullos (first cousin of early 1990s Lady Hornets basketball star Valerie Tullos) – likely will get playing time and Elijah Reynolds, who figures to see more of his time on defense, also has shown good hands.

The “O” line will be anchored by Isaac Washburn (6’2”, 220, all-MEC first team), Luke Hopper (6’3”, 260), and Brock Gott (6’, 265). All three were full-time starters last year and return at the same spots – Gott and Hopper at guard, Washburn at tackle. Cameron Dush (5’10” 240) played lots of snaps as a backup a year ago and now steps into the center slot.

Rounding out the starting line (barring injury) is junior Landon Swift (6’3”, 240), son of 1985-86 CHS All-State fullback Les Swift, at left tackle. Look for offensive line coach Aaron McQuinn, the only new member of Rulo’s staff this fall, to look for every opportunity to get junior backups Trey Tipton, Trace Rardon, and Josh Watterson playing time to enhance their development for 2020. Senior Keagan Rinehart (6’, 270) also is among the top tier of reserve linemen, Rulo reports.

On defense, Wheeler (team-high 94 tackles) was all-MEC first team at linebacker in ’18 and will anchor that 2-man unit. Kille, a starting defensive end in 2017, slides back to be the other ’backer. Humphrey and sophomore Brock Ward are the top reserves.

Up front, defensive coordinator Chad Smith has some versatility in personnel with the ability to “go big” or “go quick,” depending on the opposition’s offensive style or the down-and-distance situation.

Hopper (all-MEC HM) – who had flashes of brilliance last year, Gott (all-MEC HM), Washburn (all-MEC second-team), provide talent and bulk, when needed. Junior Dalton McCracken (5’10”, 180) used his quickness and tenacity to make some big plays from nose guard when used situationally last year. Kelow also should factor in and Swift might get some action at tackle.

Hayen and Hill return as the starting ends (Hill can serve as a linebacker/safety when the Hornets switch from a 5-man to 4-man front for some foes). Jamacin Carr (6’2”, 180) is the primary backup with sophomore Cameron Fleener likely to see some action with an eye toward next year. When CHS shifts to the 4-man front, Washburn stands up and plays end opposite Hayen with Hill stepping back or moving out wide to help defend a “spread” look.

In the secondary, K. Ward (all-MEC HM) and Rasche were starters on the corners and Sewell (4 int.) at strong safety last year. Some shuffling of them to cover for the graduation vacancy at free safety has occurred, with Rasche moving inside. D. Reynolds, with his good speed, looks likely to be the other starting corner, but E. Reynolds’ nose for the ball and general instincts might get him regular use. Juniors Dan Hoel and Tucker Wagers will be depth corners and Leamer the lead backup at safety.

As for kicking game specialists, Carr returns as placekicker and Winder will punt again with each the backup for the other. Washburn will snap for punts and Wheeler for placekicks.

Rasche had some good returns, including one for a touchdown on a kickoff, a year ago and will be joined by Sewell in handling both kickoffs and punts, Rulo reports. K. Ward also has kickoff return experience.

As for the competition Chillicothe will encounter this season, the most-obvious difference is a new opponent which involves the Hornets’ first out-of-state trip since winning at Fort Madison, Iowa, in 1994. The last game against a non-Missouri team was 1995’s visit by Fort Madison.

That will change in mid-October when the Hornets’ week eight (Oct. 18) slot – occupied by St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond a year ago, but opened by Bishop LeBlond’s switch to 8-man play – will be filled by Kansas City, Kansas’ Wyandotte High Bulldogs.

Wyandotte won only a game or two last year, but almost certainly won’t be a pushover.

That non-customary, late-season non-conference contest will give Chillicothe three outside the MEC for the first time in 10 years. Marshall and Kirksville remain the weeks one and two opposition, as they have been this entire decade.

Plagued by turnovers, Chillicothe lost both non-league games last year, being shut out both times. Both MHS’ Owls and KHS’ Tigers have their starting quarterbacks – each of which figures to fill the air with pigskins – and a number of other starters returning, so reversing either of those outcomes won’t be a simple matter.

Once MEC play rolls around – with its one less game, thanks to Bishop LeBlond’s move, defending champion and deserved annual favorite Maryville likely will have to fend off challenges from Savannah and St. Joseph: Lafayette.

With their greater experience, the Hornets look to have a reasonable chance to reverse their loss to Kansas City: St. Pius X when they host the Warriors in week five. While not “gimmes,” the week four clash at Cameron – which again has a new head coach – and the regular-season finale at home against St. Joseph: Benton should present opportunities for Chillicothe to repeat its triumphs of a season back.

As for toppling any of the conference’s projected top three, those prospects seem more limited.

Of the three, the Hornets seemed to fare best against Savannah last year, except for being burned several times by Savages quarterback Chase Spoonemore, who is back as a senior. If it can avoid surrendering repeated big plays, Chillicothe could be able to at least force those foes to use their starters deep into the second half and avoid “running-clock” blowouts.

If CHS can flip the result of one of its initial pair of non-league games and its outcome with St. Pius X, a winning regular season would be within reach. Given Marvyille’s reclassification to Class 2, that could lead to bigger and better things in the Hornets’ Class 3 postseason.

Grouped with league schools Savannah, Cameron, and Benton, as well as Kansas City clubs from Pembroke Hill, Southeast, Northeast, and Central, Chillicothe – if it makes the advances from a year ago anticipated – could well achieve the third or even second seeding for the district playoffs. Third would mean at least one home games and second could bring two and enhance the possibility of a 6- or 7-wins season or better for the Hornets.

Entering the season, Savannah and Pembroke Hill project as the top candidates for the Nos. 1 and 2 seedings, but developments during the season could rearrange that.

Prospective developments Rulo sees as critical to his Hornets “maxing out” this fall, include boosting offensive line depth, winning the turnovers battle by improving their own ball security and creating more takeaways, and continuously improving week by week while staying healthy.

“I am excited as to what the future holds and look forward to working daily with the coaches and players to positively impact our student-athletes, both as football players and young men,” the always-earnest coach asserts.